May 5, 2007
On the morning of May 5th , guests from across the United States arrived at the old home place of Sid and Matilda Champion prepared to join in a day of celebration honoring the late Margie Riddle Bearss, Matriarch of Mississippi History. The day of celebration, featuring three major events, took place eleven days prior to the 144th anniversary of the Battle of Champion Hill.
Margie, who passed away October 7, 2006, at the age of eighty, was the wife of Edwin Cole Bearss, renowned author and historian who served as Chief Historian of the National Park Service from 1981 until 1996.
Margie is credited with the establishment of the Grand Gulf Museum and the salvaging of artifacts from the Confederate steamers, Paul Jones and Charm, and the Union gunboat, the USS Cairo. Also to Margie’s credit are four books: Sherman’s Forgotten Campaign: The Meridian Expedition; My Dear Wife: Letters to Matilda; Darwina’s Diary: A View of Champion Hill ~ 1865, and Collected Stories of the Vicksburg Campaign.
"Saturday was a day typical of what we expected in the Deep South," commented some of the guests who traveled from northern states to attend the event. "We expected the humidity and the heat but what we didn’t expect were the gorgeous Magnolia trees in full bloom. The sight was like something out of a picture book."
Sid Champion opened the day’s events by greeting the crowd who had assembled for the dedication of Rebecca Drake and Margie Bearss’ latest book, Collected Stories of the Vicksburg Campaign, followed by the unveiling of the Memorial Stone in Margie’s memory. Of the day, Drake commented, "Today is a day for reliving history - a day for making new history - and a day for remembering Margie Riddle Bearss, the Matriarch of Mississippi history." Also speaking at the event was Billy Ellis, one of Margie’s former students from Lexington High School, class of 1956. Ellis read his poem, Champion Hill, before giving his Eulogy to Margie.
Grady Howell, assisted by Charlie Brantley, was given the honor of unveiling the Memorial Stone draped with a Mississippi flag. The flag was presented to Margie’s youngest daughter, Jenny Bearss, and her sons, Todd and Andy Olmsted. The dedication program closed with infantry and artillery salutes followed by James Clark, bagpiper, playing Amazing Grace. "It was a Grand Day," commented Howell.
Noted authors and historians who were present for the historic occasion included: Dr. Elbert Hilliard, former director of the Mississippi Department of Archives and History; John C. Waugh, author of Edwin Cole Bearss: History’s Pied Piper; Terry Winschel, historian of the Vicksburg National Military Park; Elizabeth Joyner, Museum Curator at the Vicksburg National Military Park and author of The USS Cairo: The History and Artifacts of a Union Gunboat; and Grady Howell, author and historian representing the Mississippi Department of Archives and History. Walt Grayson, a local celebrity noted for his Look Around Mississippi segments on WLBT, was also present with his camera rolling.
As the crowd mingled on the lawn, they were treated to a luncheon featuring buttermilk pie for dessert. The pies were made by Terry Brantley and Lil Lovette using Matilda Champion’s original recipe. Other activities included: a Civil War art exhibit by Jerry McWilliams; Picking and Fiddling on the Lawn, a group organized by Ann Mason, professional violinist; and a Civil War Medicine exhibit by Joe Gerache. Re-enactors, Confederate and Union, set up typical campsites on the lawn to give those present a feel for army life in 1863.
The all-day event climaxed in the afternoon with the unveiling of the historic marker, CHAMPION HOUSE SITE, on the grounds of Champion Hill M. B. Church. The lovely hillside situated along the Old Jackson Road was the site of the original Champion home which was burned by the Yankees in July 1863. Sid Champion commented, "As early as 1897, my great-great grandmother, Matilda Champion, gave the black congregation the right to use the land for religious purposes. Since that time, the church and its membership have never faltered and there has always been a close relationship between the church and the Champion family."
Reverend Marion Leflore, minister of the church, and his wife, Gloria, were present for the unveiling of the marker. "I was honored to be chosen to cut the ribbon and unveil the marker on such a special day," commented Rev. Leflore. Among the church members present were D. J. Johnson and Johnny Lewis, property owners of portions of the Champion Hill battlefield. "
We take great pride in the fact that the historic maker was the first of its kind to be placed at Champion Hill," said Drake as she addressed the crowd. "We know that you as a church family also share in our pride."
The marker was funded by the Champion Heritage Foundation which was established in 2005 by Rebecca Drake, Sid Champion, and Margie Bearss. All book sales and donations to the foundation will go toward battlefield preservation at Champion Hill.
"Champion Hill is one of the state’s most important battlefields," commented Drake, "and we must do all that we can to keep the history alive. That includes making the land accessible to the public so they can be a part of the history."
Sid J. Champion stands beside the new historic marker which tells the story of the Champion family during war times. The marker was placed on the site of the original Champion house, now the home of Champion Hill M. B. Church, which was burned by the Yankees in 1863. Rev. Marion Leflore, minister of Champion Hill Missionary Baptist Church, accompanied by his wife, Gloria, was given the honor of cutting the ribbon.